In a 30-minute farewell address to the nation, 75-year-old Zuma said he disagreed with the way his African National Congress party had shoved him towards an early exit after the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as party president in December, but would accept its orders.
“I have therefore come to the decision to resign as president of the republic with immediate effect,” Zuma said.
“Even though I disagree with the decision of the leadership of my organisation, I have always been a disciplined member of the ANC,” he said.
The ruling party had said it would vote him out on Thursday.
“No life should be lost in my name. And also the ANC should not be divided in my name,” Zuma said.
The ANC ordered him to step down as president on Tuesday.
When he failed to resign on Wednesday, it announced that it would back an opposition motion in parliament to force him out.
His resignation ends the career of the former anti-apartheid resistance fighter, who has four wives, a sharp tongue and a decades-long history of entanglement in scandals.
The rand currency soared more than one per cent to a 2-1/2 year high of 11.79 against the dollar during the day.
The many scandals of Jacob Zuma
THE ARMS DEAL
Zuma is still fighting 783 counts of corruption over a 30 billion rand government arms deal arranged in the late 1990s when he was deputy president.
THE RAPE ACCUSATION
While deputy president of the ANC, Zuma was charged with raping Fezekile “Khwezi” Kuzwayo, the HIV-positive daughter of a friend who had been imprisoned on Robben Island with Zuma during the apartheid era.
Zuma was acquitted in 2006 but was ridiculed after saying he had showered after sex to reduce the risk of contracting HIV.
Soon after becoming president, it emerged that millions of dollars of public money had been spent on upgrades to Zuma’s Nkandla home, including a swimming pool that one minister justified as a fire-fighting resource.
Zuma weathered a no-confidence vote in parliament over the upgrades and paid back more than $500,000 after unsuccessfully trying to argue his case in the Constitutional Court.
Zuma apologised to South Africans in 2010 after fathering a child out of wedlock with his friend Irvin Khoza’s daughter, Sonono Khoza.
Zuma, a polygamist, had promised the ANC’s leadership he would not engage in extramarital sex after the Khwezi episode.
Zuma caused controversy in 2012 for scolding black people “who become too clever” in an address to South Africa’s National House of Traditional Leaders, saying “they become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions”.
Zuma fired finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015, replacing him with unknown parliamentary backbencher Des van Rooyen. Zuma was forced to sack van Rooyen and re-appoint a previous finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, four days later after the rand currency collapsed.
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